Category: Books

Little-known literary gatekeepers

Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist are among the first reviewers of most new books. They are not widely read but often they are treated as gospel by the publishing trade. Their evaluations determine how seriously a book is taken by other reviewers, by media, by bookstores, and by filmmakers looking for new script sources. Read this Slate piece on how these outlets work, and why the Internet is decreasing their influence.

Paul Krugman’s latest

If you read blogs, you probably already have made up your mind about Paul Krugman. When perusing his new The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century, I found myself continually reminded how smart he is, what a good writer he is, and how often he is right. He led the way in publicizing the fiscal irresponsibility of the current Bush administration. I disagree with his politics, but his points have enough force to make me squirm.

If you are wondering, the book is basically his New York Times columns.

I like him best when he stays away from his pet hobby horses. Krugman gets through his essays on Robert Mundell, and the Swedish economic boom — both tight and thought-provoking pieces — without once attacking George W. Bush or calling the Republicans evil.

But these days I can never forget the other Paul Krugman, the one who keeps free market and right-wing bloggers so busy. The Krugman of self-righteousness, sloppiness with the facts, and ad hominem attacks. The Krugman Truth Squad remains. There are many examples of this other Krugman, I was struck by one particular example, taken from Donald Luskin:

Paul Krugman, September 2, 2003:

“I admire the virtues of free markets as much as anyone.”

Now this could make a great party game. Let’s see, where do I begin…? How about, Paul Krugman, June 20, 1999:

“The question of how to keep demand adequate to make use of the capacity has become crucial. Depression economics is back. …in a world where there is often not enough demand to go around, the case for free markets is a hard case to make.”

My take: Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by “as anyone.”

Addendum: Perusing the book more, I find Krugman (p.27) also writes: “I like the theory of efficient financial markets as much as anyone.” Four pages later, he writes, from a different column: “The more I look at the amazing rise of the U.S. stock market, the more I become convinced that we are looking at a mammoth psychological problem.” He also writes of “Seven Habits of Highly Defective Investors” (p.27) and calls them “an extremely dangerous flock of financial sheep.” (p.30)

Are book reviewers honest?

Cronyism appears to be a problem with book reviews. After all, why would a busy reviewer take on a project, if not to butter up a potential ally or score points against an enemy? Some reviewers simply love being part of the cultural conversation, but you can’t always trust their evaluations. Read Mary Gannon on www.aldaily.com. But is the problem growing worse? Oliver Goldsmith and Alexander Pope leveled the same charge against cliquish eighteenth century English literary circles (see my In Praise of Commercial Culture for more discussion).

For the fanatic

A familiar and useful source on American politics is back, the Almanac of American Politics, edited by Michael Barone, see the book’s web page, you get 1800 pages for your $60. It analyzes every American political district exhaustively, and has been accused of having a conservative political bias. The Chicago Tribune tells us that Barone is to politics as Bill James is to baseball. Recommended for researchers and political junkies.

Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand on Alan Greenspan

It is well-known that Alan Greenspan was an acolyte of Ayn Rand in his early years. Jerome Tuccille’s new book, Alan Shrugged offers juicy anecdotes about these times. Here is Branden and Rand speaking of Alan (p.53):

“He was tall and solidly built,” said Branden of Alan, “with black hair, dark horn-rim glasses, and a propensity for dark, funereal suits. He was somberness incarnate, looking chronically weary, resigned, and unhappy. He was twenty-six years old. Barbara, Ayn, Frank, and I once encountered him, with Joan, coming out of an elevator. ‘He looks like an undertaker,’ Ayn commented.”

For Alan on Rand, see my blog post at The Volokh Conspiracy.

How different is Canada?

I’ve been enjoying Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life, by William Watson. His main point is that globalization does not prevent countries from increasing the size of their governments, if they choose to.

As late as 1958, the U.S. and Canada had similar percentages for government spending and taxes. Canada then increased its size of government, although the two countries moved economically much closer over the same period of time.

The book is full of interesting facts, although they do not always fit together into the same picture. What are the ten most generous states or provinces in terms of welfare benefits, in the U.S. or Canada (p.146, note that the book is from 1997)? Surprise, all ten are in the U.S. They include New York and California, hardly small parts of the country. If you are curious, Quebec comes in at number 38 on the entire list. The author argues that Canadians are not always as different from Americans as they like to think.

The Lunar Men

I highly recommend Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men. In the 1770s, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestly and others met regularly under the light of the full moon to talk science. The Lunar Men is their biography. It’s the sort of biography where you learn much about other things. I found interesting discussions of private road and canal building (Wedgwood was a big supporter because some 30% of his pottery would break on the public roads), private coinage (Boulton ran a mint using the steam engines he and Watt had developed to press the coins), and the first industrial health and sickness insurance plans. Rousseau had an important influence on the group and makes an appearance as does Benjamin Franklin and many other figures of the day.

Erasmus Darwin was an especially colorful genius who wrote what were in essence biology textbooks set to verse! In this stanza (from The Temple of Nature) he discusses evolution long before his grandson was born:

Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves

Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;

First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,

Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;

These, as successive generations bloom,

New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;

Whence countless groups of vegetation spring

And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing.